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Susan Bauer-Wu, an associate professor in the department of adult and elder health nursing at the Emory University school of nursing in Atlanta, will join Rosenbaum to conduct a program for health professionals caring for people with life-threatening or debilitating diseases. Called “Meeting Suffering: Clarity and Calm in the Care of Serious Illness,” it will run from October 9 to October 12 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The program is offered through Oasis, an institute for mindfulness-based professional education and innovation run by the Center for Mindfulness.

After she received her own diagnosis, Rosenbaum underwent eight chemotherapy treatments. She kept teaching mindfulness classes at the stress-reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and interspersed the chemotherapy sessions with mindfulness retreats. “Going to the retreat center during the treatment period really helped me retain balance, go with what was happening, and not resist what I could not control,” she says. “The hardest thing for patients is to meet what arises and genuinely practice, which means surrendering, letting be, and noticing where your attention rests so that you can be skillful in directing your attention. You have to be willing to receive. There is a ton of receiving, as well as some giving.”

Based on her experience, Rosenbaum encourages patients to “receive” what is occurring rather than reject it. Directly engaging the experience of the disease and all that surrounds it makes it possible to not identify with the disease. It’s hard for any of us to hear this kind of advice—experienced meditator or not—when we are diagnosed with a serious illness, but hearing it from Rosenbaum makes it more believable, since she has a tremendous depth of experience as a cancer patient.

Five months after she finished her chemotherapy treatments, a scan revealed that the lymphoma was becoming aggressive and growing again. During the stem-cell transplant treatment that followed, she contracted pneumonia. Friends said she looked ghostlike, and indeed her lungs had filled with so much fluid that she nearly died. The doctors were surprised at her ability to retain respiration with such stress on her lungs. Rosenbaum says she thinks it’s possible that “my ability to quiet the mind, and just be there breath by breath, without heightening or contracting in response to what was happening, allowed me to breathe better. Without mindfulness during that period, I actually believe I would have died.”

Rosenbaum recovered and was cancer-free, but the intensity left its mark. She felt during that period that her practice helped her come to terms with death and that she was genuinely unafraid. “I felt connected to people, to the world, and surrounded by love. There was a window in my room. I could overhear children’s voices. I looked at the sky. I felt connected to life itself and knew that were I to die, life would continue. Being mindful allowed me that perspective.”

Eight years later, around the time of her sixtieth birthday, Rosenbaum was on a loving-kindness meditation retreat when she felt a great deal of pain. A mass had developed near her colon that needed to be surgically removed. And this year, fourteen years after the original diagnosis, a small tumor was discovered in her breast, which was eradicated with low-dose radiation. “For many people, cancer has become a chronic disease,” she says, “so it’s really important to learn to live successfully with uncertainty. It doesn’t have to be at the forefront, but it does need to become a completely accepted part of life. Then, when something does occur, you can move with all the different thoughts and feelings and sensations and relax with procedures, rather than fight them. Being able to do that has been just wonderful for me.”


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